Finding the right category for Robert Bly’s “More Than True: The Wisdom of Fairy Tales” isn’t the easiest of tasks. On one hand, it contains Bly’s retellings of six fairy tales from around the globe — and, given that Bly is a comfortable and easygoing storyteller, there’s a terrific blend of the timeless and the modern found in that aspect of the book. (See also: Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology.”)
But that isn’t all that Bly is up to here: In his hands, these stories also veer into an in-depth exploration of human psychology, with the conflicting characters best viewed as aspects of a larger narrative. (See also: Roberto Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.”) Alternately, this is a blend of the comforts of the oral storytelling tradition with the rigor of the modern analytic approach — sometimes heady, sometimes contemplative.
The bulk of Bly’s book is occupied by the retelling of six distinct fairy tales, hailing from a variety of spots around the globe. As such, some may be familiar to certain readers and entirely fresh to others; once the retelling has ended, Bly generally supplies a bit of history behind the narratives, and explains the variations that have come up around the years.
What follows, primarily, is a kind of analysis of the stories. In his introduction, Bly argues that these can be instances where “the psyche is trying to communicate what it knows, trying to slip something by the guards of the dictator ego, embroidering it, altering original effects until it reveals some complicated truth.”
Viewed through this lens, the external conflicts of these stories are reimagined as allegories for internal conflicts. For example, “The Lindworm,” in which the elder of two royal brothers is cast out for his monstrous shape, is viewed as a tale of “reconciliation between the chthonic, dark, earthen world and the golden, light, airy one.”
It’s an interesting approach to take when revisiting these stories, and it’s one that benefits from Bly’s skill as a raconteur. In the midst of telling the last, and longest, story, “The White Bear King Valemon,” Bly pauses briefly to comment on the action so far, and the effect is charming rather than distracting. So, too, is the cumulative effect of these retellings and the commentary, which can either be interpreted as an interesting means of interpretation or of something directly therapeutic, depending on the reader.
It’s a bold blend of storytelling traditions and psychological explorations, but the overall effect is a comprehensive one: a revelation of things hiding in plain sight.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He lives in New York.
More Than True: The Wisdom of Fairy Tales
By: Robert Bly.
Publisher: Henry Holt, 169 pages, $27.